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Weaponizing food to harm political enemies

People look for food in the garbage due

People look for food in the garbage due the extreme food shortages at Sabana Grande on Jan. 31, 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit: Getty Images/Edilzon Gamez

Starvation, like the recent efforts to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, is a slow process. Withholding food is never a quick solution to a rapid death. Maduro’s authoritarian tactics deliberately deny his opponents access to food. In the absence of a citizen uprising, or international intervention, we are likely to see the continued demise of men, women, and children who are barely surviving on 700 calories a day.

The weaponization of food to control enemies of the state is nothing new in human history. Authoritarian leaders can use commodities as an effective means of social control. In Venezuela, the lack of food is a reflection of ignorant economic policies of the Maduro government that have crippled the state’s ability to trade, coupled with the decline of oil production, also the result of the inept management of the nation’s greatest resource, oil.

Under these circumstances dire economic conditions led to weaponization, a gray area in humanitarian law, since there was not a direct withholding of food. But the intent of the Maduro government to distribute food only to his supporters had the same effect as weaponization. By providing food only to those who support his regime, Maduro is committing an act of genocide. His intent to starve his enemies is clear, if not transparent, and this is where the commission of war crimes begins. Under the Geneva Conventions, withdrawal of food from civilian population is prohibited. Whether the situation in Venezuela can now be characterized as a time of war is not as clear, given that there are now two governments – one recognized by more than 50 states and led by opposition National Assembly Juan Guaido, and the other headed by the illegally elected President Maduro.

No matter whether there is an official act of war or a deliberate policy of genocide in Venezuela, President Maduro has chosen to weaponize food as a policy to strengthen his grip on society. Today the most food you can buy there on a minimum wage salary is 700 calories, but most people are out of work or spend a good portion of their day in search of food.  A common sight is to see families searching through trash to find morsels of food to feed themselves and their families.

Venezuelans have lost an average of 25 pounds this year. Eighty percent of all households have no reliable source of food. And as of 2017, maternal mortality had increased by 65 percent, and infant mortality by 30 percent. Data from medical non-governmental organizations indicates that 25 percent of children under 5 is suffering from malnutrition and stunting, statistics seen only sub-Saharan Africa.

Unlike the situation in Cuba in the early 1990s, the famous “special period” when Fidel Castro chose to forsake food assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union and let his citizens endure tremendous hardship, the sacrifice in Venezuela is not part of a socialist revolutionary vision. It is the result of ignorant economic policies, coupled with a government that is deliberately denying food to those who remain in the country (3.4 million Venezuelans have already left the country).

Once the richest countries in Latin America, this beleaguered nation has become a war-zone of the political haves who are protected by the guns of a military backed by Cuban thugs and Russian mercenaries, who are willing to help squash opponents by preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Since international intervention in Venezuela seems impossible, given the history of this type of action in Latin America, we can only wait for the diplomatic efforts of the region’s governments and friends of the opposition government to find a way to coax the leadership of the military to provide an exit ramp for Maduro. We have witnessed that Maduro loyalists are not eager for change, as the bloodshed of a week ago at the borders in Brazil and Colombia demonstrated. 

If there is a global conscience in the Americas, Venezuela must become its poster child for alleviating suffering by finding alternative international legal remedies to what is a South American genocide. It is time for the region’s diplomats, including our own, to work with other countries like Canada, Chile, and Nordic countries to bring in the needed relief to starving people. Diplomacy can work, but only when it shines a light on what is happening in the darkness of Maduro’s dictatorship.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a distinguished fellow and director of the Food Security Program at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. She is also an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service.

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